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1973 could be considered one of the most memorable years of the 20th century in American history. Elvis Presley’s concert in Hawaii is first by an entertainer televised worldwide, being watched by more than the Apollo landing, Vietnam War ended, Roe vs. Wade, Watergate scandal, and the oil crisis begins to name a few. Sports alone became a history maker in that George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, Miami Dolphins won the Super Bowl to be the only perfect season, the first designated hitter rule went into effect, Foreman vs. Frazier, Billie Jean King def. Bobby Riggs in a battle of the sexes tennis match. But none of these brought the country together more than one simple being, an amazing horse, Secretariat.
Mayhem Pictures and Walt Disney Pictures, who brought us the heart wrenching of perseverance and the thrill of an underdog winning in “Miracle” and “Invincible”, have teamed up again to bring us the telling of the whom some would say is the greatest non-human athlete ever. Randall Wallace (We Were All Soldiers, Man in the Iron Mask) takes the reins of this amazing story of going for it all in the face of adversity and the “Old Boys” club. Weaving the silk that is the story is Mike Rich (Radio, The Rookie) who takes William Nack’s “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion” and covers you such warmth that is a story not just about this exquisite horse but the trials and tribulations of the woman that stood up and said ‘NO’. That woman is Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane (Under the Tuscan Sun, The Perfect Storm), a well educated woman who must step into her father’s footsteps to show everyone that her passion is just as hot as the next man. Helping her realize her gut feelings are true in nature is Lucien Laurin the ex jockey turned trainer that is down on his laurels and needs a boost. John Malkovich (Murn After Reading, The Great Buck Howard) saddles up as the extravagantly dressed (for the time) Lucien.
It was a coin toss to decide a champion. Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn) and the richest man in america, Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell) agreed instead of money that a coin toss would be used to give the winner the choice of foals between Phipps’ stallion and Chenery’s mares. Chenery would never see that toss but his daughter Penny (lane) would. Having stepped into the family business after her mom passed away and to help out her father whose health was failing him. Penny had never run a stable before but she knew she had it in her blood. After doing a little research she knew which foal she wanted, and she got it, even though she lost the toss. She had to find a trainer though if she was to prove her theory and on good word she found Lucien Laurin (Malkovich), a trainer and ex jockey who had trained some good horses and some busts. Penny knew he could do it and put her trust in him even though he didn’t think he could do it himself. When the day came for the foal to be born, Penny, Lucien and Eddie Sweat (Nelson Ellis) saw something they had never seen before, a colt stand up almost immediately. They all saw that flash of greatness before their eyes, the chestnut red, they called Big Red. The only issue at hand was dealing with her father’s recent death and inheritance issues she would need to step up with the ‘Old Boys’ and beat them at their own game. Once given that chance to, Big Red loved to run and run he did, with the help of jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth), they ran into history.
Talk about a triumph over those who talk big and think that they know everything. William Nack was just a beat writer back when he was writing for Sports Illustrated and took such extensive notes when he was covering Secretariat that he had to write a book. It would be this basis that Mike Rich and Randall Wallace stepped in to bring it to life. Little details are not missed and even though there are some artistic liberties taken by these two, it tells a story that any long shot can relate too. It is their subtle glimpses into this wonderful animal they have taken from page to screen that may land themselves as well as several others looking at another trophy. Hint hint, nudge nudge. Dean Semler (2012, Apocalypto) has a way with the lens. No matter if he is behind the camera or strapping under the belly of a horse he draws you into the film and its emotional saga. To help you in the emotion is Nick Glennie-Smith (Ella Enchanted, We Were Soldiers) whose score brings the feel and emotion of a 1:53 second race to the entire film. Let’s not forget the costuming that was so well done by Michael T. Boyd (The Company, We Were Soldiers) and Julie Weiss (The Travelers Wife, Blades of Glory). Michael does a wonderful recreation of the feel and look of the early 70’s. (I still remember the plaid pants my mom would put me in.) His costuming of Malkovich keeps you wondering “what is he going to wear next?” Julie had the pleasure and creativity to dress Lane as Penny. Doing a little research of my own, she does the time justice and gives Lane the look and feel of a woman on a mission with style to boot. This entire crew does an outstanding job of bringing back those early 70’s and letting us remember history again.
About those actors, hmmm how can I put this? It is like Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes. From the opening scene Lane takes her roll and makes it her own. Now, yes she is playing a real person, who was even on set to see how Lane was portraying her and from interviews it sounds as though the real Penny was quite pleased. Lane enjoyed the time they had to get to know one another during the process and I think it helped in showing the world Penny was a fresh spark of entrepreneur in a male dominated profession. Lucien was a short man, a jockey turned trainer so Malkovich playing him is a little odd at first. Malkovich pays no heed to that though and brings honesty in true portrayal to Lucien. His quirkiness plays well with the character. To Mrs. Chenery, the real Penny, Malkovich brought out a little color to Lucien something many didn’t see. One character stood out for me though, Nelsan Ellis as Eddie Sweat, a quiet man who was Secretariat’s groomer. Now you wouldn’t think much of the groomer but Eddie watched over Big Red every moment he wasn’t on the track. Nelsan plays Eddie with a sweetness that you want to know more about Eddie, why he’s so passionate about Big Red and horses in general. It is a far stretch of a character than who Nelsan plays in “True Blood”. The talent doesn’t stop there, with notable appearances by Fred Dalton Thompson as Bull Hancock, Scott Glenn as Christopher Chenery, Dylan Walsh as Jack Tweedy, Kevin Connolly as Bill Nack (yes William Nack the author of the book) and AJ Michalka as Kate Tweedy. Let us not forget the star of this film, Secretariat. Although several horses were used it was amazing to see the characteristics many have written or described about Big Red come to life on screen. My heartfelt applause to all your training and care for these majestic horses.
What more can I say than this film is just like a horse race. In the beginning it is steady and builds. By the first turn it picks up and there is a lot of jockeying for many parts of the story, by the back stretch you get a clearer picture of what everyone is going thru. The last turn speeds up even more as the stakes are bigger and losing is not an option. Coming around to the home stretch you have a clear view of the finish line and the roses waiting for you. Penny did a lot of what she did by gut feeling. Something many of us never act upon. Let alone everyone thought there was no way she could do it. Not even her own blood, her brother or he
r husband had faith in her. She didn’t care. She knew what had to be done and who to go to, to help her. Lucien, Eddie, and Ron knew she had faith and knew Secretariat was a winner. There was no stopping this horse that just wanted to run. You can learn a lot from watching this film or even going on YouTube and seeing the clips yourself of this magnificent horse and he’s amazing family. Life is like a race, no matter what, as long as you have the drive, keep running. Make the right moves and the finish line will be right in front of you. My mom has told me that since I was born, the day Secretariat won the Preakness. Thanks mom.